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More than Patterns: Social justice, Equality and Equity, Shaheen Kasmani

Shaheen is a London born and raised, east African Asian textile artist and designer with a background in language, literature and education. Her specialism is in surface pattern and textile design, principally using traditional patterns and motifs in both conventional and contemporary contexts.

Her work tells stories. These stories are about celebrating something long forgotten, or a reclamation of the narrative from those who have hijacked or imposed their own upon others. She is interested in colonial legacies, social justice and using art as a tool to facilitate change.

We talk to Shaheen about her journey into visual arts, reclaiming narratives and taking ownership of history.

You have a background in language, literature and education. How did you move into a career in visual arts?

When I was an English teacher, I started attending weekend classes that were run by The Art of Islamic Pattern. Getting out of bed for school on a weekday was always difficult, but I fell in love with the art so quickly, I used to jump out of bed on a Saturday morning! I fell head over heels quickly and realized that this was something I wanted to pursue more seriously. I applied for the diploma course at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, and then received a scholarship to do the masters programme. Once I graduated and was back out in the real world, I decided to try my hand at freelancing as an artist, which since then has also spilled into arts and heritage education, curation, event organising and producing, which enriches my art practice and vice versa. I’ve also continued working alongside this; as a cover teacher, various admin roles, programmes manager and now a project manager.

Storytelling is an integral part of your work. What stories do you tell through your work?

I like to think that, with the space, time and privileges I have, I can help to create spaces for stories that are often overlooked, or as Arundhati Roy says, purposefully unheard. I hope this is true. A lot of my work focuses on colonial hangovers and colonial legacies, and how we view the othered, often how we view ourselves. For example, specific projects in the past have included exploring the truth about British history, Muslim women’s scholarship, and state violence against marginalized people.

Why is the preservation of history, heritage and culture important to you?

I’m still exploring this and learning about this, but at the moment I think that when it comes to re/imagining better, healthier, more sustainable and regenerative ways of living, being, and building care and alternatives, it’s difficult to imagine in a vacuum. We have inevitably internalized the processes of the systems that exist, often designed with profit at the centre instead of care. So, learning about our roots, our journeys to where we are now, our languages and creativity grounds that thinking in something real, but gives it the license to imagine beyond somebody else’s borders and the narratives that have been imposed upon us.

What materials and process do you undertake from concept to creation of your artworks?

Everything for me starts with the story – I have to ask myself what is it all about and what is the point? Then my imagination does something on how I want this to look like, and what the outcome should be, and what is the best way to communicate, to tell the story. More often than not, there is not really an audience in mind, I’m the audience. What do I need to learn and understand from this, and how do I need to get there. There is always some inspiration, often from nature and people and other artists’ use of forms and materials. Then I work backwards – the forms, the patterns, the shapes, how they link together, constructing them and the making several tracings to get it right. I’ll then transfer it on to fabric or paper, and start adding colour. Very rarely does anything turn out the way I imagine or want it to, and everything ends up being a bit of an experiment.

You are also a curator, what has been your most challenging and rewarding experience curating?

The most challenging was The Past is Now at Birmingham Museum Art Gallery. There are links to this on my website. It was an exhibition looking at the museum’s collections and telling stories about the second city’s relationship to empire. Whilst it was internationally acclaimed and is taught about on university courses today, the process itself was a very colonial and exploitative one. The most rewarding has had to be in collaboration with other people, and organisations such as MAIA and Civic Square (who were Impact Hub Birmingham) and collectives such as Black Females in Architecture. When you can have fun and celebrate on the way, it’s a piece of work that has extra layers of meaning and fulfillment.

Which of your artworks is your favourite and why?

This is an interesting question, I’ve never thought about this! There are some individual pieces that I am quite proud of, although it feels weird to say that. I think it’s the pieces that are in size bigger than I ever thought I would make, that turned into a bit of an installation. And the 2 pieces that I have that are interactive. I love standing back and seeing people interact with the work. I think the Hearts of Green Birds series makes me the most emotional though. I’m still considering if I should continue working on it, as unfortunately the themes are constantly ongoing, or if its time to take a break and revisit it at a alter stage.

What does the future of Islamic art look like to you?

As imaginative as possible! Grounded in the principles of tawhid, faith and spirituality, but with lots of exploration and experimentation. I’d love for Muslims to feel more confident and have ownership over the history and also its representation, but to also acknowledge and celebrate overlooked centers of knowledge and learning, and address a redefining of what is our center. What is the art saying, what is it really about? I’m also really interested in how art, architecture and designed spaces cater to those who are most often excluded, and how to incorporate Islamic principles of social justice, anti-racism, equality and equity into this, I would love to see more of that. I’d also love to see more celebration, more joy and more love.

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